Laurence Strangio’s production of L’amante anglaise, currently in its second encore season, has won significant critical acclaim, even earning Jillian Murray the 2015 Green Room Award for Best Female Performer, Independent Theatre. It is easy to see why there has been so much interest in, and indeed demand for, this production. It struck me as something quite unique in the current landscape of independent theatre, which often seeks the spectacular, the cinematic, full sensory stimulation. Strangio’s production is a work of measured stillness and immense focus. The staging is simple, and necessarily so, as the text they bring to life is a gargantuan web of criminal intrigue and domestic mundanity. The action is contained in the space between the two actors, Murray and Robert Meldrum, as they sit opposite each other, never moving from their seats. And this is contained by the audience, who are seated on either side of the stage, which creates a claustrophobic sense of mutual and inescapable surveillance.
While this unique production certainly deserves much of the praise it has garnered—particularly for Murray’s brilliant performance as an alleged murderer—the slow-burn energy and immense depth and detail of the script at times struggled to maintain the attention of all audience members. The placement of the audience meant that any restlessness was very noticeable, and distracting. Although I marveled at the skill of the writer, the late Marguerite Duras, and of the performers for their phenomenal focus (even through a particularly rowdy rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ that could be heard from the street), I was left feeling unsatisfied, as if I had failed to tap into the deeper significance of this story that seemed to resonate enough with the artists and audiences to warrant three seasons. The story itself seemed very self-contained, with no wider implications for our current social or political climate.
L’amante anglaise is the story of a gruesome murder, allegedly perpetrated by the victim’s cousin, Claire. But really, it becomes the story of the complex romance between Claire and her husband, their nuanced and troubled domestic life together, and the way the tension between them may have manifested in murder. These are not really spoilers, these facts are laid out quite clearly by the actors in the opening moments of the play, before the step into character.
Strangio’s direction is beautifully balanced, in form and pace. The play is in two parts, two interviews, the first with the husband, and the second with the wife, each speaking not to a detective but an analyst, trying to dig into the psychological truths behind the legal facts.
The design is simple with no accompanying sound, no set save for two simple chairs, and minimal costuming. A prudent directorial choice as any design flourishes would have had to compete with the text, which was all-encompassing, and at times rapturous. Duras’s text is rich, cleverly using the framework of a psychological analyst to follow a married couple down the twisting roads of love, betrayal and loneliness, to a most violent end.
Strangely, though, the violence features very little, the script instead focusing on the many tangents of their domestic lives that run parallel to the question of violence. The complexity was truly astounding, with tiny details mentioned early in the piece burrowing deep into the text, gestating, before emerging as the gnarled, tangled roots at the heart of the conflict between Claire and her seemingly comfortable life. A staggering work, interrogating the domestication and incarceration of a woman who is seems both terrified and relieved to be pushed into the space of archetypal ‘madness’. An intimate portrait of the destruction of two women at the hands of a suffocating life of luxury, with interesting divergences into ableism and slut-shaming. Though in some ways I think I would enjoy reading the text or watching it as a film, as at times it did not command the attention of the audience.
Murray’s performance as Claire was simply superb. Meldrum presented the husband as well-rounded and relatable, which became quite disturbing at times, when his language effortlessly slipped into frighteningly dismissive tones when it came to the health and well-being of his wife. But time spent with him seemed to drag out a little, as it became increasingly clear that the entire first half of the show spent with him was setting up for the second half, in which we were finally able to lay eyes on the woman he had been describing.
The contrast of that moment was deftly handled, Murray presenting a meek, gently spoken woman; delicate and disoriented. But we see her unravel, unspool, pile up. Murray draws the audience in, and then shoves us away again with explosive moments of despair that speak volumes of the simmering passion that was trapped beneath the domestic façade, and at the root of so much ‘hysteria’. Murray’s performance was seamlessly natural, she gave way to tears gently, and you could track the character’s repression of those feelings as it swept gradually through her physicality, in a display of remarkable awareness and control in performance. As we watched her relationship with the analyst develop, which was the most interesting part of the play, it was fascinating to watch her tussle with the desire to confess and the need to maintain personhood against the autonomy of the system which sought to oppress her as a wife and now file her away as murderer.
Strangio should be commended for his nuance and gentle hand in bringing this complex and demanding piece of theatre to life. But overall, the production struggled to retain the audience’s attention – failed to capture my imagination, at least.